Emanem has been busy mining historical recordings for gems, and as a consequence they have brought some valuable material to light. Overground, recorded in 1974-75, represents a step forward in the evolution of the same Howard Riley Trio that appeared in 1971 on Flight (Future Music) and more recently from 1973 on Synopsis (Emanem). Riley, unlike many free piano players, has a remarkable ability to eschew any sort of reflex or subconscious patterning: the listener gathers the sense that he chooses each note for each moment because it belongs in that particular context. He uses repetition as a conscious act to build tension, not as a tool to fill space. His companions on Overground, über-bassist Barry Guy and drummer Tony Oxley, share the same commitment to freshness and spontaneity. The three-way conversations that result here overflow with surprise, epiphany, and wonder. Even on compositions where Riley specifies instrumentation (as on "Spliced") or uses graphic notation to enforce tone (as on "Overground"), the real beauty of Overground lies in the very spontaneous cycle of observation, statement, and reaction among these three musicians.
Three of the tracks on Overground feature the full trio. "Pages" is a duo performance between Riley and Oxley; and "Recognition" is an overdubbed piece for Riley alone. After the vivid conversational tone of the trio opener, the piano/bass duo "Pages" offers stark, eerie contrast. Toward the beginning and the end of this piece, both Oxley and Riley make extensive use of electronics to alter their tone and volume. The result of all the knob-twiddling is that the native sounds of the piano and drums disappear in a vast abyss of artificial noise. Even by mid-'70s standards, the live electronics here really explode the sonic pallette. At times stereo separation is the only way to tell who's playing what. When Riley and Oxley unplug toward the middle of this piece, they contruct more clearly resolved (and frankly, much more coherent) musical structures. The fiery exchanges that evolve out of the atomic mist bear some resemblance to Cecil Taylor's recorded drum duets with Oxley; but Riley tends to use both hands to reinforce themes, rather than playing one off the other to elevate tension. His rhythmic sense has more focus and clarity.
The overdubbed piece "Recognition" presents Riley's experiments combining acoustic and electronically-modified piano sounds. To these ears, this piece wanders off course a bit too often. As a result, it ends up more a celebration of noise than an exposition of developing musical ideas.
As a document of three intuitive, creative musicians working at the highest level or interaction, Overground is a brilliant success. In the purely acoustic setting, very few trios have ever reached this degree of cohesion, flow, and discovery. The intermittent use of electronics on this disc may distract some listenersbut if nothing else, it bears intrinsic value as a historical document of early experiments with live electronics in a free improv setting. Regardless, there's more than enough diversity of material on this disc to satisfy even the shortest attention span.
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Personnel: Howard Riley: piano, electronics; Barry Guy: bass, electronics; Tony Oxley: percussion, electronics.